The inclusive computing classroom

By Catherine Elliott. Posted

Catherine Elliott shares how to make your computing lessons accessible for learners with special educational needs and disabilities, with effective approaches that are beneficial for all students

Consider the students in your computing class. What are their strengths and weaknesses; their passions and hates; the barriers they face in learning? In an ideal world we would be able to meet the precise needs of every individual learner, but this is simply not practicable.

However, there are some ways to make your computing lessons more inclusive and accessible for the greatest number of learners, in particular those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The good news is that these approaches harness effective pedagogy which can benefit all students in your computing classroom.

Warning: These approaches won’t work for 100% of students 100% of the time! Some students may require specific adaptations. Talk to your individual students and find out what works for them.

In this article I will outline a few ways for you to improve your practice in terms of how information is presented to students, and how students interact with the learning material. For more information on these strategies, and more specific advice on programming environments and activities, look out for the upcoming online course from the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE): ‘Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Approaches to Supporting Learners with SEND in Computing’.

Reduce cognitive lead

One of the most effective changes we can make as teachers is to reduce the cognitive load of learning new information and concepts. There has been an increased focus on understanding the role of cognitive load in the classroom in recent years and, for more detail, you can read Phil Bagge’s article in Hello World issue 8, and the new Pedagogy Quick Read from the NCCE here.

In essence, the amount of new information being introduced to learners can lead to cognitive overload, as the capacity of their working memory is finite. The complexity of the information and how it is presented can also increase cognitive load. Many students with SEND have poor working memory and so can reach overload sooner than their peers.

Here are some ways to reduce cognitive load for learners with SEND:

  • Teach key vocabulary in advance of a topic. Provide word lists that can be sent home for students to learn, ideally with image support. When the word is met in the classroom, the learner doesn’t have to use up working memory decoding the word, or remembering how it is spelt, and can concentrate on understanding it in context.

  • Teach basic skills explicitly and routinely. Once knowledge is transferred to long term memory, it doesn’t use space in working memory. As such, if students have a routine of logging on and accessing work from the same folder at the same stage each lesson, it’s more likely to become habit.

  • Introduce content in smaller chunks, practise what is learnt before moving on.

  • Use familiar contexts to introduce new programming and computer science concepts, such as repetition and selection. This can be done effectively in unplugged tasks, to reduce the amount of new information being introduced at one time.

Accessible teaching materials

Provide information in a range of formats – e.g. text, images, video, and audio – so that students with sensory disabilities can access content and to support weaker readers. In addition, presenting information both verbally (narration or text) and non-verbally (i.e. as an image) allows the learner to access more working memory capacity, and can enhance recall. This is the central idea of dual coding theory (Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and Verbal Processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).

Ensure materials are accessible by the greatest number of students with regard to font, colours, layout, and content.

For example:

  • Use sans-serif font of at least 12pt in documents or 24pt in presentations.

  • Avoid italics and underline which make text harder to read.

  • Include lots of white space and break up text with titles, paragraphs and bullet points to help readers make sense of content.

  • Make sure that the text colour contrasts well with the background colour, and don't use colour as a sole indicator of meaning.

  • Use simple language where possible, and keep your sentences short.

Finally, make the most of in-built assistive technology in the everyday tools you use. Immersive Reader in Microsoft One Note and Office 365 will read text aloud, highlight key parts of speech and includes a picture dictionary. Pupils with poor or slow typing can use Voice Typing in Google Docs to add content. Android tablets and iPad include a number of accessibility options, including magnifier, zoom, screen readers and colour options.

Provide word lists with image support for learners to pre-learn key words

Provide variety in activities

Provide a variety of ways for students to interact with learning material, for example use a mix of unplugged activities, physical computing devices and screen-based tasks.

Unplugged activities tackled away from technology are an effective way to introduce computer science and programming concepts. Curzon et al detail how they can help students make sense of abstract concepts through physical objects that can be touched, manipulated and described. “This can make it much easier to explore the concepts involved and makes it easier to ask questions about things that aren’t understood ... By providing a physical representation, the learner can point to and ask the question at the level of the analogy rather than having to fully verbalize it at the technical level.” (Curzon et al in Computer Science Education, ed. Sentance et al, 2018).

Allow students to present their learning through a range of media, for example animations, videos, comic strips and graphic organisers. A student with poor spelling and slow writing may be able to express him or herself far more effectively and with a wider vocabulary through recording a video or audio clip or drawing a diagram than via a written answer to a question.

Scaffolding learning activities

The Use-Modify-Create model posited by Lee et al (2011) is incredibly useful for scaffolding learning across the computing curriculum (also the more detailed PRIMM framework, developed by Sue Sentance). The cognitive load associated with creating digital content or writing a program from first principles is much greater than when adapting a working model. Students can begin by running working programs or playing a good quality animation. They can learn about the key concepts and features without having to worry about making mistakes or writing a large amount of text.

Students can then move on to modifying a working program or a template of digital content to create a more personalised version. This provides a level of guaranteed success in the activity, which will help to boost the confidence of learners with SEND and increase engagement with the learning. This model also helps teachers to include every student in the lesson, with a number of different entry levels. You can find a selection of Scratch activities at that can be used to scaffold learning for all students, with options to debug, order, explore and modify code.



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